[This is my latest rewrite of "How to Be Creative" [Older version is here]. 12,000 or so words, plus lots of cartoons. The book's text will be quite short, divided into four parts, but there will be plenty of cartoons to look at, between 150-300 of them. The book proposal is here.]
"So you want to be more creative, in art, in business, whatever. Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years."
PART ONE: AN INTRODUCTION, OF SORTS.
Before we get started, three points:
1. "Creative" is one of those annoying words that means little, simply because it means so many different things to different people. I make no claim to have a better definition of "creative" than anyone else.
The best working definition of creative I have is "When work and play become the same thing".
When that happens, you're in flow. When you're in flow, things are created.
Perhaps there are better definitions of "creative" out there. Does it matter? Not really. What matters is that you find your own definition. You don't need mine. I don't need yours.
2. The creative drive is like the sex drive. We all have it, and because what we do on this earth affects other people, we have to be careful what we do with it. Because to use it unwisely can screw up your life.
I am not here to tell you how to be more creative than you already are. God/The Universe/Whatever made you creative, just like he/she/it made all of us. Tapping into it is a personal journey- other people can only help you so much. That being said, I think once you've gotten the itch to do something creative, there are a lot of land mines and pitfalls that are best avoided. All I can do is tell you what has worked for me over time.
I used to associate "creativity" with all that youth-generated sexy stuff: fun, glamorous jobs, being hip, being artisitic and meeting women. As I get older and I see how the world is changing away from the Big Media Industrial Complex towards something much more personal, complicated and fractal, I start equating it more with mass economic survival.
3. Quitting your job at the phone company to become a musician is no different than quitting your job at the phone company to start your own accountancy firm. It's just the human spirit trying to better itself. The difference between art and commerce is artificial. What matters is not what individual path you have chosen, but that you stay on it; that you become the person you were born to be.
PART TWO: "HOW TO BE CREATIVE":
[NB: The full version of this PART TWO is here. Over 10,000 words, 31 drawings etc. The shortened version appears below for reasons of space.]
So you want to be more creative, in art, in business, whatever. Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years:
1. Ignore everybody.
The more original your idea is, the less good advice other people will be able to give you. When I first started with the biz card format, people thought I was nuts. Why wasn't I trying to do something more easy for markets to digest i.e. cutey-pie greeting cards or whatever?
2. The idea doesn't have to be big. It just has to change the world.
The two are not the same thing.
3. Put the hours in.
Doing anything worthwhile takes forever. 90% of what separates successful people and failed people is time, effort and stamina.
4. If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being "discovered" by some big shot, your plan will probably fail.
Nobody suddenly discovers anything. Things are made slowly and in pain.
5. You are responsible for your own experience.
Nobody can tell you if what you're doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile. The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is.
6. Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten.
Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with books on algebra etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the creative bug is just a wee voice telling you, "I’d like my crayons back, please."
7. Keep your day job.
I’m not just saying that for the usual reason i.e. because I think your idea will fail. I’m saying it because to suddenly quit one’s job in a big ol' creative drama-queen moment is always, always, always in direct conflict with what I call “The Sex & Cash Theory”.
8. Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity.
Nor can you bully a subordinate into becoming a genius.
9. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb.
You may never reach the summit; for that you will be forgiven. But if you don't make at least one serious attempt to get above the snow-line, years later you will find yourself lying on your deathbed, and all you will feel is emptiness.
10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props.
Meeting a person who wrote a masterpiece on the back of a deli menu would not surprise me. Meeting a person who wrote a masterpiece with a silver Cartier fountain pen on an antique writing table in an airy SoHo loft would SERIOUSLY surprise me.
11. Don't try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.
Your plan for getting your work out there has to be as original as the actual work, perhaps even more so. The work has to create a totally new market. There's no point trying to do the same thing as 250,000 other young hopefuls, waiting for a miracle. All existing business models are wrong. Find a new one.
12. If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.
The pain of making the necessary sacrifices always hurts more than you think it's going to. I know. It sucks. That being said, doing something seriously creative is one of the most amazing experiences one can have, in this or any other lifetime. If you can pull it off, it's worth it. Even if you don't end up pulling it off, you'll learn many incredible, magical, valuable things. It's NOT doing it when you know you full well you HAD the opportunity- that hurts FAR more than any failure.
13. Never compare your inside with somebody else's outside.
The more you practice your craft, the less you confuse worldly rewards with spiritual rewards, and vice versa. Even if your path never makes any money or furthers your career, that's still worth a TON.
14. Dying young is overrated.
I've seen so many young people take the "Gotta do the drugs and booze thing to make me a better artist" route over the years. A choice that was neither effective, healthy, smart, original or ended happily.
15. The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.
Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it. The more you need the money, the more people will tell you what to do. The less control you will have. The more bullshit you will have to swallow. The less joy it will bring. Know this and plan accordingly.
16. The world is changing.
Some people are hip to it, others are not. If you want to be able to afford groceries in 5 years, I'd recommend listening closely to the former and avoiding the latter. Just my two cents.
17. Merit can be bought. Passion can't.
The only people who can change the world are people who want to. And not everybody does.
18. Avoid the Watercooler Gang.
They’re a well-meaning bunch, but they get in the way eventually.
19. Sing in your own voice.
Piccasso was a terrible colorist. Turner couldn't paint human beings worth a damn. Saul Steinberg's formal drafting skills were appalling. TS Eliot had a full-time day job. Henry Miller was a wildly uneven writer. Bob Dylan can't sing or play guitar.
20. The choice of media is irrelevant.
Every media's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Every form of media is a set of fundematal compromises, one is not "higher" than the other. A painting doesn't do much, it just sits there on a wall. That's the best and worst thing thing about it. Film combines sound, photography, music, acting. That's the best and worst thing thing about it. Prose just uses words arranged in linear form to get its point across. That's the best and worst thing thing about it etc.
21. Selling out is harder than it looks.
Diluting your product to make it more "commercial" will just make people like it less.
Many years ago, barely out of college, I started schlepping around the ad agencies, looking for my first job.
22. Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.
Everybody is too busy with their own lives to give a damn about your book, painting, screenplay etc, especially if you haven't sold it yet. And the ones that aren't, you don't want in your life anyway.
23. Worrying about "Commercial vs. Artistic" is a complete waste of time.
You can argue about "the shameful state of American Letters" till the cows come home. They were kvetching about it in 1950, they'll be kvetching about it in 2050.
It's a path well-trodden, and not a place where one is going to come up with many new, earth-shattering insights.
24. Don’t worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually.
Inspiration precedes the desire to create, not the other way around.
25. You have to find your own schtick.
A Picasso always looks like Piccasso painted it. Hemingway always sounds like Hemingway. A Beethoven Symphony always sounds like a Beethoven's Syynphony. Part of being a master is learning how to sing in nobody else's voice but your own.
26. Write from the heart.
There is no silver bullet. There is only the love God gave you.
27. The best way to get approval is not to need it.
This is equally true in art and business. And love. And sex. And just about everything else worth having.
28. Power is never given. Power is taken.
People who are "ready" give off a different vibe than people who aren't. Animals can smell fear; maybe that's it.
29. Whatever choice you make, The Devil gets his due eventually.
Selling out to Hollywood comes with a price. So does not selling out. Either way, you pay in full, and yes, it invariably hurts like hell.
30. The hardest part of being creative is getting used to it.
If you have the creative urge, it isn't going to go away. But sometimes it takes a while before you accept the fact.
PART THREE: MY PERSONAL FAVORITES:
An artist is quite a fucked-up thing to be, and to be honest I'm not sure if I would recommend it to anybody. Still, in my cartoon collection there are a couple of examples that, in some sick and twisted way, make the whole thing seem worthwhile. For the first five minutes, at least:
The Shark Bar
When I first moved to New York, I stayed at the YMCA on West 62nd.
My first drawing as a New York resident was on my second evening, sitting on a barstool at the Shark Bar- a hip, young place in SoHo.
Having only been in town just over 24 hours, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by New York, to say the least. Plus I had drunk quite a lot that evening. I think both show up in the drawing.
I've been back to the Shark Bar a couple of times since then, but it never had the same insane magic of that first evening. Great name for a bar, though. Especially in Manhattan.
Spring '98. I was at a bar, it was late, I was kinda tipsy.
Suddenly I realized that my life hadn't changed much in the last decade since leaving college. Work, bars, cartoons, random conversations of a big-city nature, second-hand bookshops and art films, the occasional bout of random or regular sex to tide things over etc etc.
It wasn't as interesting as it used to be. But I hadn't moved on, really. And I had no idea where to go next.
Welcome to New York.
The best cartoons are the ones that give you these amazing moments of clarity as you draw them. That's the best thing about cartooning, really. Everything else seems rather secondary in comparison.
December 29th, 1997. Fanelli's, on Prince and Mercer in SoHo, is one of the great bars in Manhattan. I had been in New York only a couple of days when I found myself there, drinking heavily.
I no longer drink much, however at the time I had this idea that seriously heavy drinking was essential in order to enjoy New York properly. I don't think I was wrong, either.
Around midnight at the bar I bump into an old acquaintance of mine from Chicago, Mark Mann. He had moved to New York about 3 months previously to do something with his film career. He is one of the funniest and most interesting people I know, but at the time I didn't know that. We were quite suspicious of each other for the longest time before we admitted that we actually were friends.
I hadn't told anybody I was moving to New York except on a need-to-know basis, so he was quite surprised to see me there. A ghost from his former Chicago life- just popped out of nowhere.
Told him my story. Told him about being laid off in Chicago. Told him about this new job I got in New York. Told him I only knew I got the job officially 5 days before Christmas- only about a week previously. Asked him how he was liking New York.
"It's great," he said. "Everybody's insane with loneliness, but that's OK. After a while you realize that's part of the edge."
I was hit with a paradox. I wanted to be in New York, I wanted to be "part of the edge", but I didn't want to be "insane with loneliness". Was one necessary in order to have the other? Was it a price worth paying? To this day, I still have no answer.
A couple of months later (July, '98) I drew this, sitting on a barstool. Thinking back to that conversation with Mark, suddenly I had a realization: The simple truth about New York is that people don't go there to give. They go there to take, or at least, to get. If you feel like giving, good for you, somewhere an angel is smiling yada yada yada, just don't expect other people to follow your example. And if you're feeling lonely, at least now you now know why. This drawing is partly about that.
Within 1 week of meeting this person you realize that not only have you found your soulmate, but you've found your soulmate who likes to have sex 4 times a day in the bed, on the dining table, on the kitchen floor, in the changing rooms at Bloomingdale's etc.
Within 2 weeks you're already talking about moving in together.
Within 3 weeks you're talking about having babies together.
Within 4 weeks you realize this person is a complete psychopath.
Within 5 weeks this person also thinks you're a complete psychopath.
Within 6 weeks you're sitting at a restaurant with an old friend who is giving you the "How come you only call me when you're single" speech.
I remember being young and stupid. How utterly sweet and simple life seemed back then, but I also knew in the back of my mind that these days weren't going to last forever. Ouch. Hopefully, in a decade or two I'll be looking back to this time now with equal affection. I think that's all you can do, really.
Early 30s is a great time to be alive- you're still young, but you have experience. A powerful combo.
The downside is all that weird rockstar shit you believe about yourself is well past its sell-by date, and if you haven't outgrown it by then, it starts to fuck up your life.
New York is tough enough if you're a man. God knows how the women manage to do it.
The piece is not particularly clever nor especially beautiful to look at. But something gently disturbing resides just beneath the surface. Hmmmm… sort of like apartment brokers.
All clients want one, I am told.
Cheap Plastic Toys
Some of it was my fault, some of it wasn't. Regardless, I've made a list and they will pay dearly.
There are many advantages of getting older... more money and respect from the world at large being the main one. However, with all this newly found cash & kudos comes the idea that maybe the world isn't such a nice place, after all. That maybe all that unhappiness you see on the faces of your fellow commuters is there for a reason. And no matter how much you try or how hard you work, none of that will ever change.
Still, I suppose it's better to know that said brutality exists, rather than burning all those calories pretending it doesn't. I just wish I'd wised up a decade earlier than I did.
OK, this one isn't exactly subtle. But it doesn't take any prisoners, either. Unrestrained bile is actually pretty hard to pull off, artistically.
Wolf vs Sheep
No, I don't have an answer to which option is better. Both exact a heavy toll, eventually.
Too Many Cats
Good thing a certain friend of mine never reads my website.
I've always been a big Dorothy Parker fan. Urbane wit at its finest. Would I trade my life for hers in order to be that talented and famous? No way. Like all intoxicants, talent can be a poison. Reading her biography, it seems she learned that more than most.
It's 2 am and I'm in this crazy Midtown Irish bar. I have no idea why I'm there. I shouldn't be there. I should be somewhere else. Asleep, comfortable, happy, sharing my bed with a sensible girl from a good family, Brooks Brothers' pyjamas, insufferably middle class. But no.
Everybody in that bar is crazy. I tell myself I'm the only sane one but I think I'm kidding myself.
Being an artist/creative is like wearing funky clothing. Every year gets a little bit harder. After a while it just looks stupid. Eventually the stupidity reaches critical mass and the late-night tailspin begins. At a midtown Irish bar at 2am, while I'm drawing this picture, these things no longer seem to matter.
I like this card because it's the kind of thing poor old Dorothy would have written.
All The Time
After years of struggling in impecunious obscurity, a very old friend of mine recently had a bit of success in his business.
Suddenly, everybody in the industry knew who he was, and would mob him at trade shows and conventions. People who wouldn't have given him the time of day only a year before were shamelessly throwing themselves at him, scattering business cards like confetti.
My friend, the rock star. Who knew?
Shortly after one of these little feeding frenzies, we meet up for a drink, as we do.
He’s telling me all about it. All the off-the-record stuff that happened. All these relentless people coming after him, like terriers on the bone.
“How weird,” I say.
“Sure is,” he says. “Now I know what it's like to have a vagina.”
One evening after a gruesome day at the office I went into a café on 6th Ave to write. Got a coffee, found a table, opened my laptop and looked around. I'm not kidding; there were nine other people in the café with open laptops, writing away, just like me. Nine. I counted. They were probably writing the same tedious crap I was.
"It's a novel about some guy who moves to New York to break into the high-brow literary scene and score with lots of chicks yada yada yada…"
One of the reasons I stick to cartooning is because my traditional prose writing is so godforsakenly awful.
Writing about New York is a bit like writing about sex- it's already been done to death. And done. And done. And done again. It's a form of literary necrophilia. Unless you have something completely unique and visionary to say about New York (I have yet to meet somebody in the flesh who does), any kind of Manhattan-fuelled artistic ambition runs the risk of turning you in to a "ligger".
"Ligger" is Scottish slang. A ligger is a hanger-on, a wannabe, a parasite-to-the-hip. Somebody who goes to art openings to drink free wine, but never buys a painting. Somebody who sees art as not something you make, but something you milk. Somebody who is always seen, but never remembered.
Living in New York is only possible if you treat it like a religion. Liggers are really good at this, for some reason. Hence their vast numbers; hence why a big part of your average day in New York is spent seperating the liggers from the real people.
So you're going out a lot. Pretty soon you're going out too much. Parties. Bars. More parties. More bars. So you decide to cut back a bit, y'know, start living like a normal person.
So you trade in those wild & crazy times for delivered Chinese food, Forbes Magazine and Seinfeld reruns. You're just going to try it for a couple of weeks, and see how it feels. After all, this is a "new you" we're talking about. A better you. A saner you. A wiser, more sensible and compelling you.
But you know in your heart of hearts that you didn't move from suburban Cleveland, Denver, Pittsburgh etc to a $3000-a-month Manhattan apartment just to watch Seinfeld.
In New York, you always think that if you try harder, work longer hours, make more money, spend more time at the gym, put more effort into networking, read more books, go to bed earlier, drink less booze, avoid negative people, be less shallow about the whole sex thing, be more supportive to your close friends, eat more vegetables and stop smoking so many damn cigarettes, you will eventually be able pull off that great Miracle Of Miracles i.e. you'll finally, finally, finally be able to live in Manhattan while simultaneously leading a healthy, productive, emotionally-balanced life.
PART FOUR: MY BACKSTORY
I had always drawn cartoons, but never really wanted to do it professionally. Cartooning as a day job meant chaining yourself to your table, scratching out a living in silence, interrupted only by frequent trips to the coffee shop. I wanted to see more of the world than that. I wanted to get out, have adventures, travel, make money, live in the adult world. I wanted to be part of the noisy, hustle n' bustle, big city life. I wanted to look out my bedroom window in the morning and see skyscrapers. Cartooning was too “college town” for me.
So straight out of college I got a job in a big Chicago advertising agency. It was a good choice. It pretty much used the same part of my brain as cartooning, the pay was good, the work doable enough and you got to interact with adults most of the time. Plus it also indulged one's fascination with mass media that all young adults seem to have. I was dead pleased to be in the business.
Still, my first few years in advertising were not easy. Writing ads is a tough profession. There are far too many people doing it, it’s very competitive, it's hard as hell to stand out and get ahead, the stress is awful, the future is always uncertain, the hours are long, the working weekends are many and the politics involved are completely insane.
By the late 1990’s I was starting to burn out a bit. The job was taking its toll. In spite of this I found myself being offered a great new job in New York City, which I jumped at.
My first year in New York was a transient time for me. Uncertainty about my career and other personal issues meant instead of settling down like a normal person, I was going out a lot. I was drinking way too much. About this time I started doodling on the back of business cards, just to give me something to do while sitting at the bar.
Business cards are the perfect medium for a New York barfly. They're easy to carry around, they don't attract a lot of attention, they don't take up a lot of space at the bar, they're cheap and disposable enough so it doesn’t matter if you spill your drink on them. They’re a completely unfamiliar, baggage-free, expectation-free medium, so it doesn’t matter if you never get a foothold in the gallery or publishing scene. They can simply exist without a lot of fuss.
People walking past the bar on the way to the bathroom would see this jittery, unkempt guy in a tweed jacket on a barstool, doodling furiously and wonder what was up. Sometimes they’d look at my work. Sometimes it would be met with entusiasm, sometimes not. Often I was asked if I publish. I’d say no, I don’t.
Saying no would invariably get me a funny look. Why was I bothering doing something this involved if I wasn’t planning on publishing it? This is New York, dammit; you’re supposed to have a master plan for world domination etc.
But I had the advertising job. I didn’t need the money, not really. The advertising paid well enough; even if it was wearing me out a bit. I knew how much most cartoonists make (peanuts) and how hard they work (very). It wasn’t a route I wanted to go down.
Besides, I had been working my ass off for over a decade. Maybe I liked just doing something for no reason, for a change. Maybe I liked the fact that these wee drawings would never be seen by a wide audience. Maybe I liked not having the pressure to succeed at all costs in the forefront of my psyche. Maybe it made me feel less of an animal to be motivated by something other than raw ambition.
Maybe I just saw myself swimming in this crazy, desperate, horny, existential, urban, greedhead-frenzy sea of random bodies, and maybe the act of sitting at the bar and doodling for no reason was my little antidote for it. My little piece of driftwood to cling on to.
It is a very agreeable feeling, when you know you have something special and wonderful happening, but you don’t feel any particular need to let everybody know about it. I knew the cartoons were good, I knew I could do something with them. But I also knew the publishing market. I knew those media folk weren’t ever going to make my life easier. Instead of waiting to be discovered, I was doing the opposite. I was deliberately keeping them from the commerce-minded people, who I just knew would spoil everything the moment I let them anywhere near.
Then the internet came along and changed everything.
I’m not sure how I got into the internet so heavily. It just snuck up on me. One day I just built a website and started posting my drawings on it. A few months later 9-11 happened and all hell broke loose. People were being laid off all over. People were at home, surfing the internet. I guess that’s when my work started getting noticed. People started blogging. I started blogging, too.
The world has changed since 9-11, anybody who thinks differently is a fool. And for some reason I find myself far better suited to the post-9-11 world than the fun, prosperous, party-central one that came before.
The future we see before us is a chaotic one. Somehow sitting there at a Manhattan bar in the late 1990s, endlessly doodling away for no reason, I got a glimpse of the impending chaos a few years sooner than my more stable, prosperous, well-adjusted friends.
Chaos can be a positive thing. Chaos is inherently part of the creative act. To embrace creativity means you must also embrace chaos. Things don’t happen when everything is neat and “just so”. Creativity is all about distruption. The people who tell you that creativity is pain-free are liars. The people who tell you they’ve got a plan are liars. There is no plan. There’s just you, God and the need to invent. And this uncertain world is what most of us now find ourselves entering, willingly or otherwise.
Creativity equals chaos. Chaos equals creativity. Embrace it or die. I’ve already done so. I know all about it. It almost cost me my liver but like I said, education is expensive.
The Creative Age is upon us. The Chaotic Age is upon us. We are scared. Damn right, we should be scared. But out of the terror comes the amazing opportunities for us to expand both on the material and spiritual level. The fewer safety nets there are to save us, the less choice we have to be anything other than ourselves, the less choice we have besides doing what is meaningful to us. And finding ourselves, doing what matters, becoming the person we were born to be, this is what God put on this earth to do.
We live in amazing and interesting times. If we're lucky, while on this earth we can do a damn good job proving it.
Your dream may be modest, it may not be. It could be a little candle shop; it could be a software company with the GNP of Sweden. It doesn't matter. Meaning Scales.
We are entering "The Creative Age". We have started to look for meaning.
We are hungry. Meaning is the prey.
That doesn't mean we suddenly quit our accountant jobs and go back to film school, or give up selling real estate and start cranking out our first novel.
Some of us might, but not all. That would be far too predictable.
It means we're starting to recognize that our work is just as much part of real lives as our evenings and weekends, that our jobs are not mere economic units that pay for "our real lives" outside the office.
Our jobs ARE our real lives, dammit, and we're going to fight like hell to make sure that people recognize and respect this, not just our colleagues, but even sometimes ourselves.
We're not quitting our jobs in droves to go open organic bakeries and internet startups because we're too lazy to go get a real job in Corporate America. No, we're leaving Corporate America because "real" is EXACTLY what we want our jobs to be.
Real to us.
And maybe we'll stay within the corporate structure. Maybe we'll just go find a better corporation. One that's getting with the program. One that doesn't take its own strength or its people for granted.
Or maybe we'll just stay with the jobs we already have. Maybe the change that's required just needs to happen silently, from within.
Maybe there's more than one way to crack this nut. Maybe that's what being creative is really all about.
We are turning off the TV. We are using the internet, reading books, attending museums, buying paint, taking night classes and purchasing art in unprecedented numbers. We suddenly feel alive and excited about life in a way that would have seemed crazy a generation ago.
We are learning to sing.
We are starting to write in record number. We have discovered blogs. Acording to Technorati, 80,000 of us are starting new ones every day. Will it make money? Who cares? This isn't about money; this is about getting our thoughts together.
Our thoughts are coming together because we are no longer asleep. We're not even sleepy.
Our eyes are open, and now we're looking for fun things to do with them.
As Buddha says, there is no one road to Nirvana. Enlightenment is a house with 6 billion doors. While we're alive, we intend not to find THE DOOR, not A DOOR, but to find OUR OWN, UNIQUE DOOR.
And we're willing to pay for the privelege. We're willing to give up money and time and power and sex and status and certainty and comfort in order to find it.
And guess what? It'll be a great door. It'll add to this life. It'll resonate. Not just with us, but with everybody it comes in contact with. The door will useful and productive. Alive and kicking. It'll create wealth and laughter and joy. It'll pull its own weight, it'll give back to others. It'll be centered on compassion, but will be intolerant of dullards, parasites and cynics.
It may be modest, it may not. It could be a little candle shop; it could be a software company with the GNP of Sweden. It could involve politics or working with the elderly. It could be starting a design studio or opening a bar with Cousin Mike. It could be a screenplay, oil paints, or discovering the violin. It doesn't matter.
Meaning Scales.Posted by hugh macleod at July 17, 2005 4:55 PM | TrackBack